5 Eco-Friendly Social Housing Projects

Yves here. I imagine some readers will object to this piece, out of the view that “relocalization” is desirable and/or that we should be using existing housing stock, not building more housing. But detached homes are costly in energy terms, and refitting a house to be eco-friendly is often not attainable. And some people may object to density, but many countries, even those with a lot of land, still have most of their population living in urban setting. For instance, 85% of Australia’s population lives in cities.

In the US, we have a different obstacle to this type of housing. Public housing is almost never nice. The unstated philosophy seems to be if lower income groups get support from the government, they should be made to suffer for it via indignities like long lines, difficult bureaucracies, and dreary settings.

By Nathaniel Berman, the managing editor at Housely. Orginally published at Alternet

We are living through what the United Nations has described as “the largest wave of urban growth in history.” Today, around 54 percent of the world’s population—nearly 4 billion people—live in cities and towns. By 2030, the U.N. projects, that number will grow to 5 billion.

With such a crowded future in store, governments worldwide are struggling to provide for people who need help with housing. But it’s one thing to provide low-cost spaces for individuals and families. It’s another thing to make those spaces well-designed and attractive. In previous generations, many countries simply built square apartment buildings that were designed with one goal in mind: To accommodate the most people for the least cost. Indeed, it has always been challenging to make governmental budgets stretch to help all those who are in need of place to live.

But today, architects, designers, urban planners and housing authorities are increasingly interested in creating public living spaces that are cost-efficient, but also eco-friendly and beautiful to look at and live in. Some of the top new technology trends in these buildings include:

  • Solar heating and cooling
  • Rainwater recycling for gardening systems
  • Urine and feces separating, or composting toilets
  • Solar panels for harvesting energy
  • Use of recycled materials to cut down on cost
  • Use of modern architectural designs to achieve stylish dwellings
  • Improved social connections via Internet access
  • Improved social gatherings via built-in communal gathering places
  • Refurbishing existing structures and repurposing unused locations

The most successful buildings utilize smart designs and innovative technologies, proving that you can create dazzling, eco-friendly buildings with tight budgets, all without sacrificing style and character. Here are five exemplary social housing projects that are not only beautifully designed, but use innovative technologies to achieve energy efficiency and eco-friendliness.

1. The Savonnerie Heymans (Brussels, Belgium)

Located in the center of the Belgian capital, Savonnerie Heymans repurposes a site originally used by a soap factory and employs a range of sustainable measures across a complex of 42 apartments, duplexes, lofts and small homes. This impressive social housing project won the 2012 Prix Bruxelles Horta Award, which is awarded every two years to remarkable architectural works carried out in Brussels. That year, it also received a special mention at the Belgian Building Awards.

Some of the eco-friendly, energy-saving features of Savonnerie Heymans include solar power generation, rainwater harvesting and glass-enclosed bioclimatic loggias, which provide acoustic and thermal barriers along with privacy. Where possible, structural elements from the soap factory were used, and the original chimney remains as a landmark.

2. Bondy Social Housing (Paris, France)

(Social housing in Bondy, France / Architect: Atelier du Pont / Photographer: Luc Boegly)

In northeastern Paris, the municipality of Bondy has an energy-efficient building for 34 families. Built by Atelier du Pont, a Paris architect studio, the building was designed in a U-shape in order to preserve some beautiful trees. What resulted was a central courtyard embracing the existing trees, a roof with a high ceiling, plenty of natural light and balconies.

(Atelier du Pont – ZAC Clichy Batignolles – Timelapse from Atelier du Pont on Vimeo.)

In addition, the Bondy housing complex uses efficient passive solar design energy and collects rainwater to provide cooling. Built for low-income families and funded by Immobiliere3F, the building has classic apartment dwellings with an exterior typical of suburban Paris.

3. Carabanchel Social Housing (Madrid, Spain)

(image: Wojtek Gurak/Flickr CC)

In Carabanchel, a district located in the southwestern suburbs of Madrid, this housing project has an interior structure of 100 units and an exterior that covered with climate-controlling louvers made out of bamboo, which keeps the heat during winter months, while providing shade from the summer sun.

The housing unit also features the ingenious “Air Tree,” a tree built out of recycled materials that includes fans, water sprays, ivy plants and solar panels, which provides both shade and clean air for the residents.

4. Sinclair Meadows (Newcastle, England)

Northumbria University has learned from the behaviors of social housing residents who live in an eco-friendly community of energy saving apartments. Five hundred applicants were evaluated based on their levels of environmental awareness, and then selected to live in the complex because of the various skills they brought to the collective. Some are gardeners, some work on the maintenance crew and other serve as ecologists who, among other things, are encouraging birds to live there by creating decaying spots that attract the insects the birds crave.

“Early findings from this two-year experiment suggest that house bills at Sinclair Meadows are about £30 ($42) per month, compared to £30 per week in an average UK house,” reports the BBC’s Fiona Trott. One innovation that helps keep bills down is that each kitchen is fitted with a monitor that calculates energy usage.

Though the experiment was planned to last for two years, most residents planned to stay in the eco-friendly community for years.

5. Tuggelite Eco-Village (Karlstad, Sweden)

A longtime leader in public housing, Sweden benefits from extraordinary government support, a result of high level of income tax—nearly 75 percent tax—that help provide for senior housing and care as well. The country focuses on many different sustainable building practices; Tuggelite is one of the most prominent.

Located near the city of Karlstad in southern Sweden, Tuggelite embraces the concept of the eco-village as a community where developments in sustainable urban living can be tested. It’s no surprise that this small village street of houses was a pioneer in many sustainability strategies, such as the use of energy-efficient wood pellet stoves, passive solar heating, recycling, urine separating toilets, triple-layered windows, garden composting, promoting the growth and use of local organic foods, and using biogas from organic waste materials to operate city buses.

One of the long-term goals of this ecologically aware community is that its location near the large city of Karlstad will ultimately influence urban use of its pioneering practices.

Technological innovations in New York and Denver

In addition to these five impressive social housing projects, there are technological innovations being made in New York and Denver that address low-income housing and mixed-use community spaces.

In 2015, the New York City Housing Authority announced that the city will begin to wire buildings at five of its poorest complexes with high-speed internet connections. This would provide free online access to over 16,000 residents living in the city’s massive public housing system and help to bring New York’s public housing system into the modern era.

The problem is that low-income housing in New York has been in disrepair for a long time. The city owns at least 178,000 public housing units, many of which often suffer from lack of regular maintenance. These properties were already struggling before Superstorm Sandy ravaged the city in 2012. During the storm, floods filled electrical closets and boiler rooms, which led to no light, elevators or heat. Electronic Benefit Transfer cards didn’t work, so neighborhood stores accepted only cash, and deliveries of fuel and food did not return to normal for days. Residents helped each other by carrying water up stairways for elderly and disabled residents. Others held cookouts outside where everyone was welcome.

For those with cellphones and Internet; service was down in many areas. In order to begin the extensive process of rebuilding the complexes within the city, providing access to better communication and information was considered the first step toward bracing for the future.

Though not a public housing project, the repurposing of Denver’s Stapleton Airport is a model for reclaiming areas and recycling materials. The former airport land has become a mixed-use community with homes ranging from affordable to expensive. In addition to building seven new neighborhoods on the site, the 6 million tons of concrete that was once made up the airport’s runways has been recycled and 27,000 trees were planted. The children that live in Stapleton can walk to school, and 93 percent of community homes participate in the city of Denver’s recycling program. The new Stapleton community is one exemplar of what is possible when city planning and people work together using the best of ecological concepts to create something beneficial.

Thanks to advances in technology and innovative design solutions, public housing—which has traditionally been plagued by poor design—has been transformed into some of the most cutting-edge housing solutions in the world. As the world become more populated and urbanized, these advanced designs will serve as examples that can be copied, repurposed and developed wherever more public housing is needed. Governments of the world, take note.


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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Some lovely examples. One problem though is that there have been ‘demonstration’ buildings of this type around for decades. They are only implemented if the overall market and regulatory system supports them. Without strong land use regulation, development inevitably sprawls out following the road (or rail) system. The pressure of owner occupancy as a form of investment also encourages a very conservative approach to design – people buy with an eye to resale, rather than what is the best home. In the UK (and many other places), modern, contemporary designs were often stigmatised for the simple reason that it became another way of identifying ‘public’ housing – so private housing kept up a pattern of semi-detached and detached houses, mock tudor features, etc. etc. ‘Looks’ were more important than good design or low energy use. I think that genuine compact urban forms and low energy houses can only be implemented through a system where the main provision of houses comes through public housing and rental.

    1. readerOfTeaLeaves

      First, sprawl is enabled as non-experts, well-intentioned people who rely on campaign donations (generally from housing interests) are elected to make the rules. They then lean on the development community as ‘experts’ when they need advice. Thus does the fox become the Expert trusted to guard the henhouse.

      Second, both tax laws and personal finance (in an era of gutted pensions and over reliance on stock-based 401(k)’s) steer buyers toward houses as a form of ‘retirement savings’. Add in all the title agents, insurance agents, realtors, home materials-and-furnishings supply chain, mortgage bankers, and (in the US) auto interests, and you have a powerful collection of interests advocating for sprawl — without ever standing back to really grasp the extent of the mess they are engendering. Basically, in the US, sprawl is heavily subsidized.

      Third, with microprocessors, many bits of data (temp & humidity, just for starters) can be collected, sent to a central processing system for analysis, and then guide decision-making. This happens now with traffic analysis, and hopefully more ‘tracking’ and data collection with respect to housing will show the cost-effectiveness of environmentally sustainable practices and materials. If you are at all interested, it is worth noting that Apple’s Keynote last Monday highlighted NEST, which is a first-run attempt to get more microprocessors into the home. Initially, this is for security and comfort but the same digital technologies could easily be used to better collect and analyze data related to environmental factors.

      Know hope ;-)

      1. Adam Eran

        I’ll add that the “Experts” (i.e. the bureaucracy populated with people who have Masters degrees in planning, and have graduated from Traffic Engineering schools) are true examples of the old joke: An “ex” is a has been, and a “spurt” is a drip under pressure. And, of course, traffic engineering schools are funded by auto companies. As far as I know, there are no “pedestrian engineers,” despite the fact that we’ve known how to design for pedestrians in a formal way since the Renaissance. We just don’t do it much.

        Jane Jacobs says it best: “The pseudo science of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success….to put it bluntly, [sprawl planners] are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century, when physicians put their faith in bloodletting.”

    2. Adam Eran

      As someone who has been in the business of housing for a while (sales, loans, etc.), I’d like to add that, while the tendency to sprawl may exist in some small measure, the history of racism (redlining, white flight, and the structure of Federally-Insured loans from the time of FDR), and current bank malfeasance makes it worse. As one architect says, parodying Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Form follows function”…it’s now “Form follows finance.”

      I’ve known developers who want to do the right thing (i.e. pedestrian-friendly, mixed-income, mixed use development) who have had their excellent intentions thwarted by the lack of construction money for apartments. Don’t ask why, such “money droughts” come at the whim of construction lenders.

      This means that the 11 – 13 units per acre that’s essential to have enough customers for neighborhood commerce (part of the mixed use), or neighborhood transit is impossible to build. So if you must build at lower densities (and you can only build for structures for which you get construction financing) the neighborhood commerce and transit fail.

      In my most paranoid moments, I think the economic elites do this to ensure the alienation and separation of the population. If we had good public space (street space, parks, etc.), then the public might assemble and “throw off their chains.” That’s why it’s absolutely necessary to keep them isolated in suburban sprawl mono-income, monoculture pods.

      The final insult to the public realm is called the “Unearned Increment.” If land speculators can purchase outlying agricultural land for a pittance, then get the entitlement to develop it, they often make as much as 50 – 100 times what they paid (and pay no tax if they exchange out of the deal).

      Sorry, talking about land use planning is like swimming in sewage, at least for the American version.

      Incidentally, the developers in Germany have to sell the ag land they want rezoned to the local government, then buy it back at the rezoned price. The locals get all the unearned increment. This means that Germany has very nice services and infrastructure, like free tuition, even for foreigners, at their universities…and an arts budget for the City of Berlin that exceeds the arts budget for the United States of America (the NEA).

      1. PlutoniumKun

        You are quite right about how distortions in development financing provides a bias towards low density housing. There are many reasons for this, but one is the belief that adding apartments or higher density terraced housing will attract lower income people, which will impact on the value of the larger houses. Although an interesting contrast to this is in the UK where developers sometimes avoid very large houses in estates, as these are favoured by East Asian immigrants with their very large families. I’ve met developers who are very genuine about wanting to build real ‘neighbourhoods’ – they want to build something they can be proud of – but its the finance side that often pushes them towards the same cookie cutter detached houses which promote sprawl.

      2. readerOfTeaLeaves

        The final insult to the public realm is called the “Unearned Increment.” If land speculators can purchase outlying agricultural land for a pittance, then get the entitlement to develop it, they often make as much as 50 – 100 times what they paid (and pay no tax if they exchange out of the deal).

        Brilliantly put.
        Well put.
        And not the first time that I’ve heard about creative, qualified people who can’t do a better job because the economic system in which they are caught like flies in a trap is not enabling them to do their best work. Very socially expensive.

        I wish that this comment could be expanded to a guest post.

        Just as a thought experiment, how many of the people who lost their homes in 2008 could have remained well housed and solvent, if the housing had been more financially and environmentally astute? Probably plenty.

        I still think that what you are describing is a huge potential economic sector.
        But with the head-up-the-ass tax laws and lack of real-time data collection, we’re stuck in a disastrous mess.

      3. Left in Wisconsin

        In my most paranoid moments, I think the economic elites do this to ensure the alienation and separation of the population. If we had good public space (street space, parks, etc.), then the public might assemble and “throw off their chains.” That’s why it’s absolutely necessary to keep them isolated in suburban sprawl mono-income, monoculture pods.

        I don’t think this is paranoid at all. If you look at labor organizing in the 1930s, high density was absolutely essential for bringing a diverse industrial workforce (different ethnicities, religions, languages) together to reduce (not eliminate) distrust and construct solidarity. The relocation of factories out of cities and into industrial parks (not only spread out but distant from working class neighborhoods) combined with suburban residential development changed all that.

  2. Paul Tioxon

    Plenty of architects know what to do and have known at least since the 1970s, when passive solar design was widely promoted with the support of Jimmy Carter’s administration.

    The book, “SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL, a study in economics as if people mattered, by E F Schumacher, provided the concepts of appropriate technology and the soft path of development. Basically, instead of denouncing the use of technology to rescue us from the self-destructive consequences of technology, techno-fixes, the notion that we need to scale technology appropriately to nourish, support and sustain humanity.

    And during that period, without the advanced solar panels and wind turbines of today, the easiest path was the soft path of retrofitting old buildings with conservation measures, adaptive reused of abandoned buildings, such as the many old but built like a Sherman tank industrial factories and warehouses dotting the decaying urban landscape of much of the Eastern Seaboard cities. Historic Tax credits initiated a construction boom, especially in Philadelphia, that did not crowd the sky with cranes as much as clog the narrow streets with dumpsters to clear out debris.

    Also in Philly at that time, an entire block of row homes were constructed without a central heating system, saving not only on construction costs, but lowering the output of carbon emissions now for almost 3 decades. The National Information Center for Passive Solar Technology was headquartered in an office next to the Franklin Institute and fielded countless requests for building plans, conservation techniques, home energy audits and passive solar retrofits, such as adding a simple solar collector to the southside of a brick rowhome to become a greenhouse heater reducing fossil fuel consumption. Architects were at the forefront of saving oil during the Arab Oil boycott years because the techno-fixes or breakthrough photo voltaics were just not a commercial option. But that did not stop a mad rush towards conservation, insulation, swapping oil furnaces for gas, putting in energy saving windows, etc etc. Of course, all of that stopped in Jan of 1981. And oil prices swooned for quite some time, lulling everyone into the next great in-appropriate technology, the SUV the size of a 1 bedroom apartment.

    Today, the design from conception of NetZero buildings, the kind that produce more energy than they consume, is advancing, along with green or eco building elements such as green roofs that absorb rain instead of sending downpours into sewer treatment facilities.

    And retrofitting the already built environment instead of tearing down energy hogs is still a policy option due to smart construction techniques and engineered materials.


    ” The four-story brick rowhouse at 1722 Pine Street sits mid-block on the south side of Pine. It shares a cornice line with its neighbors and dates from the mid-19th century. Long ago it was split into four apartments. It’s plainspoken and inconspicuous. It is also quietly, incrementally, becoming the vanguard of a building revolution.

    Its owners, architects Laura Blau and Paul Thompson, are proposing a radical energy-efficiency retrofit aiming to ultimately meet “passive house standards” for the historically designated building. It would be the first project in Philadelphia to marry passive building standards with historic preservation, a combination that has proven successful in peer cities like New York.

    “I want to bring this building another 100 years of being viable,” Blau said before the Philadelphia Historical Commission in May.”




  3. Knifecatcher

    Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but the Stapleton project maybe isn’t quite so utopian as all that. Many of the planned low income projects remain unbuilt due to NIMBY-ism on the part of the upper middle class types (ahem).

    And kids can walk to school… assuming they can get their first school choice. Otherwise they may end up several miles away at the other end of the development.

  4. bdy

    Nice project from Alejandro Arevena in Chile.

    Got him a Pritzker, for Quinta Monroy and similar works going forward which the office (Elemental) has since open sourced. Less techno-greening here, and more about potential open-endedness in social housing. Beautiful on so many levels.

  5. JTMcPhee

    I ran across this video, which is one in a series by the same Rustic Technologist — what our survivors might need to know (if the raw materials even continue to co-exist, after the other Techies are done doing the infinitude of badness they are capable of… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P73REgj-3UE Depends a lot on available materials, and a lot of CO2 generation, but in a radically shrunken human population, what difference?

    Maybe a more likely scenario, going forward. Protect your knees, you are going to need them…

    “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” they say, assuming that building a city of imperial monuments with an economy based on slavery and corruption is a Good Thing…

  6. ekstase

    These are some wonderful buildings. I suspect that the architects and designers, anyway, were always about making things that were cool and chic. And if that can be done with inexpensive materials like bamboo, then the only reason not to is the aforementioned attempt to shame the inhabitants. The Swedish housing, in particular, looks downright cheerful. What could they be thinking?!

    1. ks

      The Swedish housing is built on a human scale. I find the others too flat and massive and joyless, however cool the designs.

  7. Irrational

    Small correction: top marginal tax rate in Sweden 57%, not 75%. Still eye-watering, but not totally out of step with neighbouring countries.

  8. Ivy

    The American incarnation of the Sinclair Meadows project would have lengthy questionnaires, background searches and all-around goodthink enforcement to select the right tenants. That would require various and sundry bureaucrats to manage the planning, implementation, follow-up and enforcement, along with some re-education component. That happens now, for the most part, with co-op boards. They just call it something different, and don’t pay attention to the environmental components. Too bad, because there is a desire among numerous citizens to live better.

  9. TheCatSaid

    By coincidence I’ve just been listening to a lengthy radio interview with Win Keech (engineer, aviator, inventor, developer of PIN code technology, photographer) who has extensive practical and commercial experience in relation to energy and sustainable technologies. NC readers might find it of interest. About 3/4 through he talks about a concept he has fully developed (including suppliers) for sustainable living multiple units for the elderly. There are a number of aspects to his concept that are highly innovative.

    It’s great to have these projects get visibility here on NC.

    1. subgenius

      – that depends on specifics – many use concrete. They are cool (although speaking from experience, packing tires is either a bootcamp or a penance)

      The most sustainable buildings I have worked on are cob and strawbale, entirely hand made and of entirely natural minimally processed materials.

  10. Monte McKenzie

    E Smith
    I have been on your email list for several years …a long time and never have you had a more controversial but timely post!
    I have been studding social aspects of the changes that our world must make in order to continue to survive ! I’m certain you try to think green but only by researching what inviornmentalist who actually study this are finding can we make serious predictions on the future of housing for survival of our plannet. Absolutly no artechetec you can name …even those who work within the advanced LEEDS plans have a actual understanding of the severity of the problem, especially here in the affluent world where everyone needs all major appliances, heat and cooling to comfort of everyone, when engineers run the numbers of cost in energy vs satisfaction of wants and needs based on any form of personal housing recommended of considered acceptable by current average americans the results are continued disaster in every case!
    google best energy efficient home designs and what you get will have three bedrooms two garages three bathrooms and will be LEEDS gold as very energy efficient till you consider that just building all that mass of building for the average three person family costs more than the world could possible afford in energy unless we find a source of completely free energy …that is energy that takes no energy to produce or transmit ! for instance our best current design of solar isn’t at all efficient and though you can power your home completely with it you are actually using up as much energy to produce the system as you will ever save and probable more! That is true of most energy sources today exception being hydro and geothermal and perhaps thorium salt systems.
    So remember that when the realestate folke tell us that they have houses that are energy efficient …tho they may take no energy from outside the house everthing built on site must be maintained and the energy it takes to build everything in, on, & in process the process and maintence of it all takes energy. Think of your car …if you want to save energy …don’t go out and buy a new super efficient electreic or whatever and scrap whatever you are driving now… You will never save enough to make up the cost in energy of building that new car! Capitolism forces decisions on us that are absurd when analyzed in the engineers cost evaluation analysis. Instead think of only mass transit no private autos at all! and apartment living with shared facilities “all facilities” and food service meals in a central dinning hall, so we would have one kitchen range for 30 or 40 people and one referigator and one freezer and no air conditioning or central heating we would have a much greater social life and we will be growing almost all our food on site ! So we will have cows and chickens and other food animals on site all the time. that eliminates almost all shipping of food which now takes thousands of trucks and vans which are simply stupid to use doing what we do now. You are able to project for yourself many other possible savings I’ve failed to think of !
    Actually we need to re-modle most of our current buildings instead of building new. As a very good economist you can expand on this …just never forget that every time you want anything new something old should be recycled into the new item with as little renovation as possible …making new is alwayse less efecient than modifying something already in existence. But we need to be careful to push the science of cost & value analysis in virtually everything we do or we will simply kill this plannet and …we may have already …did you read the science news about the Greenland melting facts just announced last week!

  11. Synoia

    I imagine some readers will object to this piece, out of the view that “relocalization” is desirable and/or that we should be using existing housing stock, not building more housing

    Better find something, we are going to have to relocate billions of people away from the coasts.

    Can these architects also design new land? (Snark intended).

    As an aside, that building in Madrid may be a model of new architecture and systems, but to me is look link a ugly oversize brick, produced in the Soviet Union at its utilitarian worst.

    We have some new lofts and townhouse were I live in S Cal. The architect was clearly demented, as every room has steps between it and any other. For a good townhouse design I suggest visiting a selection in Philly, New Your and London. The design of the 1830s work well, except for the easily fixed poor windows and roof insulation.

  12. meeps

    If the works of architects, designers and engineers were properly informed by the carrying capacity of a site, the needs of the occupants [working from the bottom up in Maslow’s hierarchy] and by the embodied energy of the build, there would be a real Eco-revolution in housing.

    The construction labor force would require new training, too. For example, rammed earth whether in tires (earth ships) or in forms (old school) should be dirt cheap in theory but isn’t in practice (and is rarely used) because few know how to design for or build with it. The height of an earthen building is limited by the wall thickness (slenderness ratio). As long as the dominant building paradigm is the high density high rise, environmental concerns will be secondary to engineering concerns. This eliminates options that are more ecologically sound than LEEDS.

    Did anyone notice that the residents weren’t asked to opine?

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